He’s Woody Harrelson, not Woody Boyd

Film Critic

Many of the crucial moments for Woody Harrelson’s Capt. Tony Stone in “The Messenger” are punctuated by the toothpick he is worrying to death, as my Carolina grandmother would say.

So tiny, so easily crushed, yet it lives for long stretches between tightly clenched teeth as the captain muses over life, death, love, sex and the military with his new charge, Ben Foster’s Sgt. Will Montgomery. It’s a nice touch, the toothpick, subtle yet telling -- just one of the ways in which Harrelson manifests the captain’s unrelenting intensity, using it to expose the emotional shadings to be found within the steely coil of control and repression that is Tony Stone.

Yet for all the emotional management going on, it is when he lets go that he leaves you barely breathing. It comes late in the film after Will’s frontline confessions about buddies he failed. Left alone for a moment, we watch as great sobs break over Tony, a hard man brought low, tears for the lost men, for Will’s pain, but mostly for himself -- a soldier without a battlefield to test him. All without a word.

With critical notice for his performance stacking up -- Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations thus far and Oscar buzz, well, buzzing -- the role also serves as a reminder that Harrelson is one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation. It is the reason, as well, for my lament that richly demanding characters like Tony, ones that would keep Harrelson top of mind, don’t come his way more often. Perhaps “The Messenger” will change that.

The problem is that we, and I mean that in the largest sense -- fans, filmmakers, the guys who greenlight movies -- simply don’t tend to think of the 48-year-old in these terms. On the face of it, Harrelson is never an easy choice. Not handsome in the hunky way of Brad Pitt or possessing that sense of latent brilliance you see roaming around inside of Robert Downey Jr., what Harrelson has is an earthy Tom Sawyer aura, the Midwest version of the boy next door rather than the casting director’s.

Even before the age of shameless self-promotion set in, Harrelson courted neither Hollywood nor the rest of us, leaving more of a vapor trail in his wake. He’s better known as the free spirit championing pot, veganism, yoga and peace, with enough hemp in his wardrobe to tug a barge up the Mississippi. Charming in that “aw shucks” Texan way with a drawl that lingers though he left the tumbleweed and mesquite-tree desert of Midland for Ohio when he was 12. That he’s a classically trained actor who writes the occasional play and tries to spend some time each year on stage, that he is dead serious about the craft of acting, are details easy to forget.

Whether by intention or default, he has spent a career more out of the spotlight than in it. But the last 12 months have been very good ones for Harrelson, and it leaves one to wonder if the tides of his career are shifting again. There were the serious dramatic demands of “The Messenger,” the machine-gun-wielding insane fun of Tallahassee in “Zombieland,” the conspiracy theorizing recluse of Charlie Frost in “2012" and the sweet soulfulness of his mentally challenged superhero in “Defendor,” which surfaced at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is tentatively slated for release early this year.

All but the overly indulgent and quickly dismissed disaster epic “2012" were made with little more than hope and pocket change. With Harrelson’s best work coming in smaller projects, there is always the worry (I’ve got a toothpick of my own) that too soon he will slip under the radar again.

It’s not that Harrelson is not around. Over the years, he has had a pretty steady stream of roles, averaging around three films a year. Some challenged him, others looked good on paper, still others had disaster written all over them. Whatever the reason, the result is that he’s a peak or valley, high-tide / low-tide kind of guy.

His best run yet was in the ‘90s: The Oscar nomination that came from his leading turn in the 1996 Milos Forman film “The People vs. Larry Flynt”; the trigger-happy mass murderer in a steamy mess with Juliette Lewis in Oliver Stone’s treatise on violence and the media, 1994’s “Natural Born Killers”; the heat that rose off the money-covered bed he shared with Demi Moore before everything falls apart thanks to Robert Redford’s million-dollar bet in 1993’s “Indecent Proposal”; and the endearing basketball con in 1992’s “White Men Can’t Jump” with Wesley Snipes.

But the valleys are deep and populated by Harrelson as the good ole boy or the easily duped -- “Doc Hollywood,” “The Cowboy Way,” “Surfer, Dude,” “Wag the Dog,” “EDtv,” “A Prairie Home Companion.” Even in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, his bad guy was both good-natured and mostly good, at least compared to the gruesome rest.

What’s his type?

I trace the confusion back to Woody Boyd and “Cheers.” The character that first introduced most of us to Harrelson, that paid his bills for years, also did more than any other to create the idea that he is an accidental actor.

The dim bulb of a bartender was his first real break, coming in 1985 when he was 24 and after a dismal couple of years struggling to make it on Broadway. Yet he so completely embodied the charming hayseed from America’s heartland that Harrelson made it easy to forget there was any acting going on at all as he swabbed down the bar and took no offense at being the butt of all those Boston jokers’ jokes.

Since Woody Boyd wasn’t deep, it shocked when Woody Harrelson was, though the performance would earn him an Emmy nomination in five of the eight years he appeared on the show, with a win in 1989.

It was with his role in “White Men Can’t Jump,” as the white rube running a scam around L.A.'s gritty urban basketball circuit, that we began to see a more complex actor emerge. Playing off the showboating style of Wesley Snipes’ character, Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle was a hustler with heart, and he played the audience more deftly than he played his opponents. With the sizzling Rosie Perez as his girlfriend, his prospects as a romantic lead surfaced too.

(Speaking of romance, though the MTV Movie Awards might not hold much cachet, I personally think it’s worth noting that his scenes with costars Juliette Lewis in “Natural Born Killers” and Demi Moore in “Indecent Proposal” earned “best kiss” nominations in back to back years; he and Moore won.)

But I have to say Harrelson is at his hottest, cinematically, when he’s armed and dangerous. He has a way of radiating charisma and crazy, which when mixed in the proper proportions spell sexy -- a brew he served up in scene after scene in the summer cult hit “Zombieland.” He makes one of the best entrances ever, emerging from a monster of a car, boot first, gun next, steely eyes peering out from under a sweat-stained cowboy hat. It’s a classic “High Noon” showdown and you know Tallahassee won’t be backing down.

It’s what made Mickey, the young, photogenic psychopath in Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” the perfect conduit for the movie’s scathing commentary on the media addiction to violence. A child of the TV generation, Harrelson infused Mickey’s every move with a leading man sensibility, a killer doling out death with movie-star style, making the Mickey & Mallory fan clubs chillingly believable.

Still, it was in portraying Larry Flynt, fighting for his 1st Amendment right to feature sex of the most carnal sort in the pages of Hustler, that would finally christen Harrelson an “actor.” The performance is as nuanced as it is outrageous.

And then the drift began again. Harrelson has said that he stepped back from acting around that time because he wasn’t having fun anymore. Behind the easy smile there has always been the shadow of anger, rage and pain, including the years of emotional hard time he did with a father he loved who died in prison while serving two life sentences for the contract killing of a federal judge.

Even when he returned to film after a nearly three-year break following 1999’s mostly unseen boxing flick “Play It to the Bone,” he came back working around the edges, in smaller films or smaller roles in bigger films. There have been some nice turns in recent years, as the underachieving, alcoholic husband to Julianne Moore’s jingle-writing sensation in “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”; the affable, devoted husband to Emily Mortimer’s adventurous photographer in the thriller “Transsiberian”; and so on, more affable this and thats putting him back in the Woody Boyd box.

Finally a flicker of hope with “Zombieland” and then the house fire of Capt. Tony Stone and “The Messenger.” Smartly, director Oren Moverman in his first feature film figured out how to mine Harrelson’s depths, allowing him to play against type when it mattered and with type when that mattered more.

It’s a rangy piece that gives Harrelson room to move. By turns rigid and recalcitrant, humble and apologetic, he bends when he needs to, breaks when that’s called for and understands more than he lets on. Tony is both the best and worst of men, without ever truly being bad. He is a great character and Harrelson has more than given him his due.

Without question the performance represents another peak for Harrelson, perhaps the highest of his career. Will it be enough to keep Woody Boyd at bay? Possibly. Will Hollywood risk more on Harrelson in light of his mastery of Tony’s demons? I hope so, but I’m hanging on to my toothpick for now.